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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs 2 Goals for U.S. Civil Space Activities The United States faces major challenges today: these include ensuring national security, providing clean and affordable energy, preventing environmental degradation, meeting 21st-century needs for education, sustaining global economic competitiveness, improving technologies for transportation and medical care, and promoting beneficial international relations. The U.S. civil space program has become a major force to be applied in meeting those challenges. In the 21st century, civil space activities affect our daily lives and also advance the national interest in a variety of ways. Space systems play integral roles in government, business, and personal communications, positioning, and navigation; in weather monitoring and forecasting; in producing remote-sensing information for agriculture, urban land-use planning, and natural resources management; in commercial enterprises that are becoming increasingly significant factors in global economic competitiveness; and in opening new windows on humanity’s place in the cosmos. While those few examples illustrate the importance of space activities in the present, space activities have crucial consequences for the nation’s future as well. Because civil space endeavors are technologically and intellectually challenging, they stimulate innovation that over the long term leads to advances with applications beyond the space sector. Emphasizing the importance of research and technological innovation, the NRC report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future1 recommended strengthening science and engineering research “to maintain the flow of new ideas that fuel the economy, provide security, and 1 National Research Council, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs enhance the quality of life.” While current government investments designed to stimulate a fragile economy can have near-term effects, investments in research in and from space can continue to lead to important future societal benefits, just as the pioneering work on concepts of electricity and magnetism in the 19th century led to uncountable (and unanticipated) applications in contemporary society. The committee’s view is that there is no single rationale for the U.S. civil space program; rather, as a significant component of the nation’s R&D enterprise, the U.S. civil space program should be structured and supported to fulfill multiple responsibilities—to assist the nation in achieving its goals of exerting strategic leadership and improving the well-being of people. The U.S. civil space program should be preeminent in the sense that it can influence, by example, how nations take advantage of the opportunities afforded by space. For the United States to be a strategic leader, its civil space program must demonstrate breadth, competence, and a record of accomplishment so that U.S. leadership is accepted and welcomed. The committee identified six major goals for U.S. civil space activities and elaborates on them in the sections that follow. All six goals serve the national interest, and steady progress toward achieving each of them will be a fundamental measure of the success of America’s space program. To reestablish leadership for the protection of Earth and its inhabitants through the use of space research and technology. The key global perspective enabled by space observations is critical to monitoring climate change and testing climate models, managing Earth resources, and mitigating risks associated with natural phenomena such as severe weather and asteroids. To sustain U.S. leadership in science by seeking knowledge of the universe and searching for life beyond Earth. Space offers a multitude of critical opportunities, unavailable in Earth-based laboratories, to extend our knowledge of the local and distant universe and to search for life beyond Earth. To expand the frontiers of human activities in space. Human spaceflight continues to challenge technology, utilize unique human capabilities, bring global prestige, and excite the public’s imagination. Space provides almost limitless opportunities for extending the human experience to new frontiers. To provide technological, economic, and societal benefits that contribute solutions to the nation’s most pressing problems. Space activities provide economic opportunities, stimulate innovation, and support services that improve the quality of life. U.S. economic competitiveness is directly affected by our ability to perform in this sector and the many sectors enabled and supported by space activities. To inspire current and future generations. U.S. civil space activities can continue to build on a legacy of spectacular achievements to inspire our citizens and to attract future generations of scientists and engineers.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs Success in advancing those five goals will result in a world-class U.S. civil space program and will serve as a basis for achieving the sixth goal, which is of particular importance: To enhance U.S. global strategic leadership through leadership in civil space activities. Because of the growing strategic importance of space, all nations that aspire to global political and economic leadership in the 21st century are developing and increasing their space-faring capabilities; continued U.S. global leadership also depends on continued U.S. leadership in space. APPLY SPACE RESEARCH AND TECHNOLOGY TO STEWARDSHIP OF EARTH Earth has a dynamic and fragile ecosphere (Figure 2.1). And it is home to life as we know it now and in the foreseeable future. However, humankind, by virtue of its numbers and its use of energy, now threatens the planet that supports its very existence: for example, by affecting climate and exhausting resources. Proper stewardship of Earth is thus an urgent responsibility of all people. While everyone, from individuals to countries, must be better stewards of planet Earth, the committee believes that the United States, as a global leader, bears a special responsibility to share its expertise and the knowledge and understanding it develops on how best to care for the planet. Americans must accept a global responsibility, or risk abandoning this important moral high ground to others. Many people live in areas that are vulnerable to severe weather, flooding, and rising sea levels. Most food production depends on the availability of rainfall, water, and adequately long growing seasons. Earth’s climate is changing, and at the same time, a growing global population is increasing the stresses on natural resources. There are, of course, natural climatic changes, but the consumption of fossil fuels and resulting greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating changes that are predicted to threaten the well-being of people throughout the world.2 The potential consequences of energy generation policy and climate change are tightly linked in ways that could further accelerate changes in the climate system. While climate change is one of the most important global environmental problems facing the world today, other aspects of Earth stewardship also demand attention. They include improving weather forecasts; developing new tools for monitoring and managing Earth’s water and land resources; and gathering information to quantify and mitigate risks from solar disturbances in space and collisions from asteroids or comets. A goal of the U.S. civil space program is to reestablish leadership for the 2 See National Research Council, Understanding and Responding to Climate Change: Highlights of National Academies Reports, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs FIGURE 2.1 Earth’s oceans, land surface, cryosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere form a complex coupled system whose interactions provide a unique habitable environment. SOURCE: Courtesy of NASA. protection of Earth and its inhabitants through the use of space research and technology. By achieving this goal, the United States and its international partners will Establish a comprehensive satellite Earth observation system, and the links to ground-based observing and information networks, that provide The data necessary to understand Earth’s changing climate and to predict its regional consequences, Reliable predictions of weather throughout the world, and Comprehensive satellite observations of society’s use of Earth and of the natural phenomena that can affect our environment;
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs Develop an understanding of asteroids and the trajectories of those that may conceivably impact Earth and plans that can be invoked in the event of an impending collision; and Establish a comprehensive research program and satellite network that allows prediction of space weather events that are dangerous or disruptive. Climate Perhaps the single most important task that can be assigned to the U.S. civil space program is to provide observations of Earth from the vantage point of space. The resulting data can help scientists and policy makers to understand the physical mechanisms that control the climate system of Earth and the influence that humans are having on them, as well as to make projections and develop future climate scenarios. That Earth is warming is already established.3 Citizens and governments now need to understand current and future regional consequences of climate change, including how precipitation patterns and habitability and productivity of specific regions can change; by how much, and when, sea levels can rise or ice sheets melt; and how alternative approaches for providing critical energy resources will relate to future climatic conditions. Understanding the potential consequences of global warming is a challenging problem that will require comprehensive, uninterrupted satellite observations, as well as qualified scientists to interpret the data and develop predictive models. This is not a problem that the United States needs to tackle alone, nor can it. Many nations have the capability to develop remote sensing satellites, and scientists worldwide stand ready to help in developing reliable predictions of future climate conditions. Coordinated international approaches and action will depend on full participation in understanding the changes that are occurring. Its technical and scientific resources and experience put the United States in a unique position to contribute so that all the nations of the world, including our own, can take prudent steps to protect the future of the planet. While the United States now has substantial projects and plans in place to respond to this challenge, the committee believes an even greater commitment is needed to reverse the projected decline in operational and research Earth observing missions, prepare to replace aging spacecraft, and initiate new high-priority missions. Weather There is a need for ever-improved weather forecasts, particularly if climate change induces severe weather events, and the difference between inconvenience and catastrophe can depend on having adequate warning. Significant progress has 3 See National Research Council, Understanding and Responding to Climate Change: Highlights of National Academies Reports, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs been made in improving weather forecasts, in large part as a result of more comprehensive and accurate satellite observations. But more needs to be done, such as transitioning certain proven research capabilities (e.g., vector sea-surface winds and radio occultation temperature, water vapor, and electron density soundings)4 into operational use. Key measurements (e.g., tropospheric winds, all-weather temperature and humidity profiles, aerosol-cloud discovery, and air pollution)5 still need to be made, and there is a need to ensure that satellites in orbit are sufficiently reliable to be able to accomplish the tasks on which people depend and that backups can quickly be brought into service when failures occur. Conducting these key measurements has been and should continue to be done in cooperation with other nations. Managing Earth’s Resources Changes in land-use patterns, agricultural productivity, ecosystems’ health, and forest resources are readily observed from space; their management can be enhanced by the use of accurate position-sensing information and diagnostic measurements taken at multiple wavelengths and as a function of time. Space observations are thus an essential component of the ability to manage the planet’s resources, a source of knowledge that might protect against the effects of its most damaging forces, and a tool to verify the impact of international environmental agreements. Near-Earth Solar System Objects There are low-probability, very-high-consequence threats to humankind from space, most notably impacts by asteroids but also possibly from comets. Such events have occurred in the geological past, and although the probability of a near-term event is low, they can be expected to occur at various times in the future. Understanding the properties of near-Earth asteroids, how they are likely to behave upon impact, their locations and likelihood of collision with Earth, and options for mitigation are essential tasks for the U.S. civil space program. It would be prudent to develop a comprehensive strategy to prepare for a potential asteroid impact. This strategy would involve multiple federal and international agencies. Space Weather As governments and private companies increase their use of space services that are now an integral part of the economic infrastructure, users also increase 4 National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008, p. 38. 5 Ibid., pp. 313 and 322.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs their vulnerability to space weather—disturbances in the upper atmosphere and the near-Earth space environment that are driven by the magnetic activity of the Sun. Space weather can temporarily or permanently disable a satellite and can also have effects at Earth’s surface, such as disruptions in power grids. Because the physical processes that govern space weather are not adequately understood, there is a need for a comprehensive research program that builds on current efforts, as well as an observational network of satellites that allows adequate warning of pending space weather events.6 Such an effort should be undertaken in cooperation with other nations. SEEK KNOWLEDGE OF THE UNIVERSE AND SEARCH FOR LIFE BEYOND EARTH Among the most profound questions that humankind can ask are, Where did we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone? Four hundred years after the invention of the telescope and 40 years after placement of the first telescope in space, humankind has come a long way in its quest to understand how the laws of nature reveal our origins and future in the context of the universe around us. Observations made from space have dramatically advanced what we know about the universe. Space observations have shown that the universe began with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago; that it has been expanding ever since; and that the expansion is accelerating due to the repulsive force of an effect called dark energy, about which little is currently known (see Figure 2.2). The first stars and galaxies formed a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, and all galaxies are held together by the gravity of dark matter, made of yet-to-be-identified particles. The evolution of the chemical elements from primordial hot plasma to the materials that make up our world and ourselves is well understood. We can now count more than 300 planets orbiting other stars and suspect that a good fraction of the 100 billion stars within our galaxy have one or more planets. Even more questions—including the cause of the Big Bang, the nature of dark matter and dark energy, what causes the solar activity cycle, how our solar system and other planetary systems formed, how common are habitable planets, whether there are nearby life-bearing planets, whether diverse life forms exist in the cosmos, or what is the destiny of our universe—are ripe to be answered. A goal of the U.S. civil space program is to sustain U.S. leadership in science by seeking knowledge of the universe and searching for life beyond Earth. 6 Space weather takes on a new dimension as human spaceflight into deep space becomes common, because radiation from solar disturbances can injure or even kill astronauts who do not have adequate shielding and may cause long-term cancerous and noncancerous effects.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs FIGURE 2.2 The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe measured the tiny variations in the microwave echo of the Big Bang (0.001 percent). These variations provide a snapshot of the distribution of matter when the universe was 380,000 years old, before galaxies and stars were formed. Their analysis has revealed important clues about the origin of the universe and its properties today (including its shape, age, and composition). SOURCE: Courtesy of NASA. By achieving this goal, the U.S. civil space program will Dramatically extend the understanding of the origins, evolution, and destiny of our star—the Sun—our solar system, and the universe, and of the physical laws that govern them; Use unique opportunities in space to discover and understand life elsewhere and extend our understanding of life here on Earth; and Share the knowledge that enriches our understanding of our place in the universe with all of humankind. Understanding the Universe If history is any guide, advances in understanding the basic physical laws of our universe ultimately have transformative practical and economic benefits. Past examples include Faraday and Maxwell’s research in electricity and magnetism; Einstein’s special theory of relativity (and his famous formula E = mc2); and quantum theory. When quantum theory developed during the early part of the 20th century, it could not have been further removed from any practical end and, indeed, seemed like a mysterious curiosity. Today, devices based on quantum mechanics—from central processors and memory in computers to lasers and network routers that make massive information transfer possible—have enabled
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs the information economy that is critical to our nation and our high standard of living. The economic and information potential presented by the Internet was made possible by the creation of the World Wide Web, a tool originally developed for basic research. Space-borne observatories have proven essential to furthering modern physical understanding, as they provide a means for addressing important scientific questions in ways that cannot be done on Earth. Earth’s atmosphere makes observations difficult because it absorbs most forms of electromagnetic radiation and cosmic rays, and its turbulence distorts and limits the clarity of images in the visible region of the spectrum. An Earth-based laboratory has to cope with many sources of interference to sensitive measurements. Earth-based laboratories are limited in size as well. Space, on the other hand, provides a vast, quiet laboratory largely free of the handicaps imposed by the terrestrial environment. For instance, scientists know that Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct largely because of experiments that include accurate measurements of the motions of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and asteroids, as well as various spacecraft. Knowledge of plasmas (essential for achieving fusion energy, not to mention the development of everyday items like fluorescent lightbulbs) would be far more limited without studies of the plasmas in our own solar system. Space-based measurements of solar energy output, activity, magnetic fields, and coronal mass ejections have contributed dramatically to an understanding of the Sun and of its profound effects on Earth. Robotic investigation of other planets and moons provides important insights into their formation and the formation and evolution of the Earth, as well as the potential for similar solar systems to have developed around other stars (see Box 2.1). While the examples listed above have been essential to confirming and refining the breakthroughs made at the turn of the 20th century, recent advances hold the potential for further transformational increases in understanding. The ability to observe gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime itself—will open a revolutionary new window on the universe, observing many phenomena that cannot be detected directly with traditional telescopes. Observational evidence for dark matter and dark energy, for which scientists have no current explanation, shows that the laws of physics as they developed in the 20th century are not complete, and further investigation is necessary.7 The civil space program supports research vital to answering a number of open questions about the nature of the universe and the physical laws that govern it. Although it is not clear where the advances driving future technology development will come from, the committee believes that scientific observations from space will very likely play a crucial role. Leading the world in the conduct of 7 National Research Council, NASA’s Beyond Einstein Program: An Architecture for Implementation, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2007.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs BOX 2.1 Seeing Titan Up Close In the 1990s, Saturn’s moon Titan appeared to be little more than a fuzzy yellow ball when observed with the best ground-based telescopes. The radar on the Cassini spacecraft penetrated Titan’s dense atmosphere and revealed river valleys feeding into apparent lakes, which the spacecraft’s infrared detectors then determined to be at least partly composed of liquid methane and ethane (Figure 2.1.1). Titan’s “hydrological” cycle is driven by methane that plays water’s role on Earth. This discovery was made possible by the ability of spacecraft to make investigations in ways impossible to achieve from Earth’s surface. FIGURE 2.1.1 Radar imaging data from the Cassini flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan provides convincing evidence for large bodies of liquid on Titan. Top: In this false-color image, the lakes are dark blue and the surrounding terrain is tan. Bottom: The coastline and island groups of a large sea reveal channels, islands, bays, and other features typical of terrestrial coastlines, and the liquid, most likely a combination of methane and ethane, appears very dark to the radar instrument. SOURCE: Courtesy of NASA.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs BOX 2.3 Public Responses to the Committee’s Questionnaire The committee’s own Internet questionnaire drew more than 1,100 responses (for more information on the questionnaire, see Appendix D). These 1,100 responses addressed a variety of concerns, although the common theme was a belief in NASA’s responsibility and potential to inspire the country. One respondent wrote: I view the civil space program as a vehicle for involving … all of America. … I am particularly interested in the impact of the space program on our children today. The importance of the civil space program transcends the generation gap … offers hope for the continued exploration of space … and also fosters the excitement that has always accompanied the space program…. We need the space program in this country and it will always bring the possibility of reaching the unknown. Another responder added: NASA has been energizing the American dream for a long time … climaxing in 1969 when the first astronauts landed on the moon and … [with] the successful discoveries by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. million unique users visited NASA’s website when Opportunity landed.13 The Hubble Space Telescope’s image archive receives at least 115 million hits a year.14 Over the course of 10 months, 80,000 people used software on the Mars Global Surveyor website to find and mark nearly 2 million craters. The efforts of these amateur space enthusiasts produced work that was reported to be on average as good as expert crater analysis and that accomplished the equivalent of several months of dedicated work on the data.15 Additionally, in a 2009 survey of undergraduates, NASA was among the top 10 most admired private and public sector employers.16 The large and enthusiastic public response to specific NASA endeavors demonstrates a curiosity about space exploration. This curiosity is an important 13 See http://news.zdnet.co.uk/internet/0,1000000097,39147138,00.htm. 14 See http://www.stecf.org/~rfosbury/functional/ECF-AR_06/Christensen.ppt#303,14,Slide 14. 15 See http://www.scienceofcollaboratories.org/resources/collab.php?317. 16 Wetfeet, Universum’s IDEAL™ Employer Rankings 2009—Undergraduate Edition, available at http://www.wetfeet.com/universumrankings/Undergrad-2009.aspx.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs first step in the learning process; as the public becomes curious about a new accomplishment, they naturally want to learn more. In this way, space activities can serve as a motivator for education and a way to capture the public’s imagination. “Climate change and Earth monitoring” was the leading dominant theme of the responses to the committee’s online questionnaire (for more information, see Box 2.3 and Appendix D). Both NASA and NOAA support activities dedicated to K-12 education initiatives, but the space community’s efforts in space activities in and of themselves captivate the general public as well and promote further interest in learning about the science behind the missions. A goal of the U.S. civil space program is to inspire current and future generations. In pursuing this goal, the U.S. civil space program will Instill a sense of interest, excitement, and optimism about opportunities for scientific and technological advancements to enhance the well-being of the nation; Attract and encourage members of the next generation of the nation’s technical workforce; and Create a new generation who can draw on the advantages offered by space to help solve problems on Earth, and ensure U.S. leadership, building on the solid achievements of the past 50 years of U.S. investments in space. Future Generations A 2007 National Academies’ study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing Americans for a Brighter Economic Future, presented a comprehensive plan for the nation as it faces the problems of deficiencies in U.S. STEM education and increased global economic competition. The report recommended that the United States should “increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education …, sustain and strengthen the nation’s traditional commitment to long-term basic research …, make the United States the most attractive setting in which to study and perform research …, and ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world to innovate….” (pp. 5-11). There are precious few national initiatives as broad in scope and technological reach as U.S. civil space activities. The broad array of enabling technologies required for successful space activities today and for future space missions encompasses robotics, advanced materials, advanced communications, advanced propulsion and power systems, biomedical sciences, and many more (Figure 2.7). Such areas of technology needed for success in space endeavors have a linkage to the technologies needed to address some of the nation’s biggest challenges—including environmental management, climate change, economic development, and generation of clean energy. Civil space activities offer a unique
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs FIGURE 2.7 Programs like NASA’s Scientific Balloon program help train the next generation of space scientists and engineers. Students can participate in balloon flight investigations to study a variety of topics in fields such as atmospheric science, solar-terrestrial physics, astronomy and astrophysics, and micrometeoritic science. At any given time, there are approximately 25 graduate students and 50 undergraduate students involved in the ballooning program. See NRC, Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2007, p. 39. SOURCE: Courtesy of NASA/University of Maryland and Jojo Boyle, University of Chicago. opportunity to inspire and to educate current and future generations, yielding benefits beyond just space exploration.17 The NASA Authorization Act of 2008 states that “NASA, through its pursuit of challenging and relevant activities, can provide an important stimulus to the next generation to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics” (Figure 2.8). While specific to NASA, this statement applies to all aspects of the U.S. civil space program. Furthermore, a reputation for competence 17 See National Research Council, NASA’s Elementary and Secondary Education Program: Review and Critique, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008, for specific recommendations about NASA education programs.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs FIGURE 2.8 Schoolchildren enjoy Space Day 2005 at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Over a million people visit the Udvar-Hazy Center each year, and the National Air and Space Museum typically receives more than 5 million visitors each year (in 2007, it had more than 6 million visitors). SOURCE: Courtesy of Dane Penland, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. in executing space missions that advance the frontier is likely to help attract talented foreign nationals to study and work in the United States, as well as to inspire our own students to enter technical fields. Spirit of Optimism Civil space activities also can exert an influence in building citizens’ confidence in a brighter future. We live in a world with many immediate concerns—notably
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs including a weakened world economy, regional conflicts and global terrorism, and threats of the consequences of climate change and limitations in energy sources. It is a time when people can be fearful that our tomorrows will be less promising than our past; that our children will have fewer opportunities than we enjoyed. Surely, a vigorous civil space program will be a strong signal that our future as a nation is promising, that life can be better, that our prospects are boundless. Civil space assets, with their global perspective on the changing Earth, can provide knowledge to enable wise stewardship of our planet’s bounty. We can become a true space-faring society with new opportunities for our economy. Civil space activities will add to knowledge of our place in the cosmos and thereby expand the cultural richness of our nation. The United States, leading by example and in cooperation with others in the exploration and utilization of space, can be a strategic leader in the world, not to be feared or despised, but rather to be valued for its concerted attention to basic challenges facing people worldwide. ENHANCE U.S. STRATEGIC LEADERSHIP Strategic leadership for the United States means thinking about the future in a way that sees beyond immediate and particularly American needs and policies—such as ensuring access to resources or a temporary military advantage—and positioning the nation to help set an agenda for worldwide action. In considering both its own national interests and benefits to humankind, the United States should aim for more than immediate solutions to transitory problems and should find approaches that seek to shape the future. Space is viewed by many countries of the world as a global commons, a resource not owned by any one nation but crucial to the future of all humankind. Indeed, human beings around the world view space not just as a place, but rather as symbolic of the future itself. For U.S. exertion of strategic leadership there is thus no venue more special than space. Through its efforts and achievements, the nation has earned its position of leadership in space. True strategic leadership will be achieved not by dominance, which in many cases is no longer possible, but by example and in cooperation with other nations. In addition to protecting those activities in space that are judged to be essential to U.S. national interest, and for which the United States must continue as an undisputed leader, there should also always be concern for the larger world and for how the United States is viewed as a benevolent nation with foresight and determination to make a better world for all humankind. A goal of the U.S. civil space program is to enhance U.S. global strategic leadership through leadership in civil space activities.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs By achieving this goal, the U.S. civil space program will Establish, exercise, and sustain global space leadership as an essential tool for U.S. global strategic leadership; Actively pursue and expand international partnerships; and Create a robust and safe space-operating regime and ensure that space becomes a more productive global commons for science, commerce, and other activities. Strategic Leadership The goals just enumerated—Earth stewardship, scientific discovery, expanding human frontiers, technological, economic, and societal benefits, and inspiration—provide the foundation for a preeminent U.S. civil space program. If America chooses to achieve these goals, in support of national interests and in the interests of the world at large, we can also achieve a goal of particular importance—to enhance U.S. strategic leadership. The strategic leadership that the United States needs to exert must be appropriate for the new era of globalization. The United States must strengthen ties to traditional allies and build increasingly effective working relationships with emerging powers. Civil space activities always have been, and will continue to be, excellent vehicles for promoting positive international relations and supporting the nation’s foreign policy objectives. International collaboration in space provides a means to carry out nonthreatening activities that can coexist with sources of tension that may arise from other events. These collaborations and activities can play an important role in enhancing a positive U.S. image abroad. International Collaboration Exerting a global leadership role in space activities is the best means to ensure that space activities can serve the broader security and economic interests of the nation. The successful construction of the ISS has shown that a coalition of nations working together can accomplish large engineering feats in space. Some particularly pressing or ambitious space activities currently under discussion (e.g., measuring and monitoring global climate change or continuing with human exploration of the solar system) may only be possible through international collaboration. Such collaboration, however, requires an awareness that different nations may participate in different ways, and for different reasons. International cooperation in space, itself, is of at least two kinds—working on ambitious projects with other space-faring nations with significant capability and involving other nations wishing to get started in space to develop capability. Space activities have potential for the nations of the developing world (maybe more so than for the developed nations that are the usual players). To these nations,
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs space is a luxury item out of their reach. With few exceptions, they generally do not partake in space endeavors with the space-faring nations. Here the United States has an opportunity to bring development-relevant knowledge to the nations that most need it. Global Commons The United States has broad commercial and security interests in space, which must be protected. Important components of our civil and military infrastructure reside in space, and America can provide true security for those space assets by committing itself to use of the global commons18 by all and by creating a mutual dependence in space that is in the best interests of all nations to protect. The United States need not rely solely on technological supremacy—which is always tenuous—but can instead build partnerships that will serve to maintain its strategic position as a global leader. Specifically, a system of customs and rules that organize the activities of many nations in space is necessary in order to prevent unintentional interference between space systems and help make space safer for all lawful activities (see Box 2.4). An example of the consequences of the current lack of such coordination is the collision that destroyed an Iridium Corporation communications satellite in February 2009. The Iridium satellite and the dead Cosmos satellite were tracked, but the U.S. Air Force was not funded or responsible for calculating every possible conjunction. The data were available, but no one organization had the resources or accountability to perform the orbital projection. A global commons environment could have helped prevent the collision by having rules to de-orbit satellites past their functional lifetime, or by the sharing of orbital data among the satellite operators so that they could calculate possible conjunctions, or by having an international space surveillance governance mechanism by which to calculate all possible conjunctions (see Box 2.5). It is incumbent upon the major space-faring nations to take the lead in establishing such customs and rules, as was done by the seafaring powers in centuries past and in global commercial aviation today, and in developing means to mitigate the threats to spacecraft safety that now exist. The United States has an opportunity to work cooperatively with other nations to protect its interests in space, but a strong and active civil space program is necessary to accomplish this goal. 18 Global commons are assets that are not owned by anyone but are central to life and used for the good of all. The term is drawn from old English law where, for example, the village grazing commons for livestock was critical to sustaining village life and was commonly held property.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs BOX 2.4 Stewardship of Space as a Global Commons The UN Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States is a signatory, establishes all of the usable space outside Earth’s atmosphere as a global commons open to all legal use by any state, entity, or individual. Although space seems extraordinarily vast, the most useful Earth orbits and spectral links are increasingly crowded and subject to natural and man-made debris and interference. Keeping space lanes safe and usable for lawful purposes, especially science and commerce, is a practical, civil-government function just as is managing the sea-lanes and international airspace. Humankind’s use of the space domain is relatively new. The number of state and private participants is growing, and there are many opportunities to set precedents. As more states get closer to landing on the Moon, the number of questions about interpretation of legal concepts such as property rights and peaceful uses is increasing. Will legal interpretations encourage free enterprise, for instance, for a commercial firm that wants to conduct mining on the Moon? Will untended or nonfunctional exploratory or scientific sites, like the Apollo landing sites or the Mars rovers, be legally protected from damage or disruption caused by later exploratory activities? There are already formal proposed “rules of the road” for space being discussed at UN forums with State Department participation. (The EU presented a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, December 19, 2008, for consideration by the UN Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The EU is now in the process of revising the document to make it acceptable to more countries.) It is in the U.S. national interest to actively conduct leading-edge human and robotic civil space activities that set positive legal and convention precedents; to exert technical and diplomatic leadership in the evolution of space stewardship systems, rules, and organizations; and to ensure that space continues to be a productive global commons for science, commerce, and other lawful activities. The protection of solar system bodies from biological contamination carried by spacecraft from Earth and the protection of Earth from possible life forms returned from other solar system bodies also is an important responsibility for all space-faring nations. Planetary protection standards are developed by the Committee on Space Research of the International Council on Science in consultation with the UN. The United States has played a leadership role in planetary protection via technical standards developed by the National Research Council and implementation protocols developed by NASA.
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs BOX 2.5 Orbital Debris Although the volume of space available for utilization is large, the most useful Earth orbital zones are increasingly crowded and subject to natural and man-made debris. In low Earth orbit, the International Space Station has maneuvered nine times over the past 10 years in order to avoid a potential collision. Communications satellites also face threats at geostationary Earth orbit altitudes (see Figure 2.5.1). Space debris has many sources. Some objects are natural—small bits of extraterrestrial material drawn into orbit by Earth’s gravity. Other objects are remnants of the space age. While most lower stages of large rockets fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, almost all final stages go into orbit. Furthermore, objects as small as paint chips can come off a rocket and pose a hazard to spacecraft. The U.S. Strategic Command tracks nearly 18,000 objects in Earth orbit, down to sizes of 10 cm across. In recent years, many observers predicted that it was only a matter of time before an operating spacecraft was disabled by a collision. This prediction came true on February 11, 2009, when a satellite belonging to Iridium Satellite LLC collided with Cosmos 2251—a defunct Russian communications satellite. The collision resulted in a cloud of over 600 smaller pieces of debris. Discussions of space debris mitigation are under way in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and in other forums. These discussions provide an opportunity for the United States to lead the global community in preserving space—particularly the most useful Earth orbits—as a global commons. For more information, see National Research Council, Orbital Debris: A Technical Assessment, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.,1995. BALANCING SUPPORT FOR MULTIPLE GOALS The civil space program is an integral part of the nation’s R&D enterprise. To the extent that the United States chooses to increase its investments in R&D, components of the civil space program should be included. However, regardless of whether budgets are growing or constrained, there is always the need to balance among those components. The committee’s first four proposed goals for U.S. civil space efforts—Earth stewardship, advancing scientific knowledge, expansion of the frontiers of human spaceflight, and provision of technology, economic, and societal benefits—are
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs FIGURE 2.5.1 Artist’s impression of the debris surrounding Earth. The number of objects in Earth orbit has increased steadily (by 200 per year on average) as more nations develop space programs. NOTE: Size of debris is greatly exaggerated as compared to the size of Earth. SOURCE: Courtesy of the European Space Agency. programmatic goals. The committee identified three criteria for assessing balance in efforts to address the first four goals. Capacity to make steady progress. Each major program area needs to be maintained at a level such that the highest-priority intermediate goals can be achieved at a reasonable pace and the next generation of technologies and technical expertise can be developed to sustain long-term progress. Stability. Rapid downsizing or abrupt redirection of a space activity are disruptive. Reconstituting a lost science or engineering capability or recovering from a major change in program direction can take a long time. A major gap in
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America’s Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs program activities can also add significant risk as new operations personnel learn without the benefit of experienced hands. Robustness. Sufficient human resources and research infrastructure—including public and private institutions and world-class research facilities—need to be maintained to enable the nation to ramp up selected space activities within 1 or 2 years as national needs change or as major unexpected scientific or technical breakthroughs occur. The committee’s proposed fifth goal—inspiring current and future generations—links the program goals with people who support the civil space program. A program that advances the four program goals but does not stimulate educational opportunities or inspirational moments would fail to achieve the full potential of a strong U.S. civil space program. The committee firmly believes that the U.S. civil space program can be a tool for addressing many of the challenges facing the nation. A space program that properly addresses the first four goals in a manner that also achieves the fifth will be a significant strategic asset for the nation. And by achieving these goals in support of national interests and in the interests of the world at large, we can also achieve a goal of particular importance—to enhance U.S. strategic leadership.